Friday, July 1, 2011

Learning to Crawl

I learned to crawl at 65 miles per hour. Or so I'm told at least.

When I was little, I remember begging Mom to "please please PLEASE" just let me go to Gulf Shores for a week in the summer. Why did we have to go these crazy places, like mission trips to Belize, tours through Europe (seriously), and dude ranches out West.

To Mom's credit, she didn't lock me in my room forever; I think she realized that it wasn't me being spoiled (right, Mom? Mom?), but rather knowing that "allll" my friends would be spending a week in Gulf Shores over the summer, and here I was being shipped off to Space Camp.

Don't worry about me-- years of therapy and the launch of my own foundation have helped me recover from the abuse.

Of course now I realize what a blessing those vacations were. At least twice that I remember, and likely one other time, Mom would rent an RV for a trip across the country. She's pull it into our driveway, where we'd spend a day or so loading it with food, clothes, toys, and general entertainment; after all, who needs suitcases when you're living out of your home?

As anyone with Southern family knows, "Memory" is a generous term to be applied to things in your own history that you experienced, experienced but don't recall, or may have experienced, or in someone else's history that you have unintentionally rewritten to now center around you.

As for me, I "remember" learning to crawl on our trip out West in the motorhome. I remember storing suitcases in the shower while we drove, only to park on unlevel ground and have the entire shower flood ruining, of course, Mom's suitcase first, the lowest on the pile.

I remember the family mutiny when it was pouring at the campground and Mom cooked steaks in the microwave. You try telling the mac 'n cheese generation that gray steak is done.

I remember Mom's panic as we literally had to wiggle around curves in the mountains to make it to the cabin, and when Dad had had enough of road living, and we drove that bad boy straight into downtown Boston to stay at the Charles; the bellboy offered to stay with it all night if he didn't have to crawl on top of the roof to take the bikes off.

Perhaps I should back up. Do you know what an RV looks like? Sure, you've seen them on gameday, tricked out with porches and TVs on the side, but have you ever experienced them? On the inside, they generally have, starting from the back, a bedroom, a bathroom, a kitchen area (which has a table that converts to a bed), a sitting area (which has a couch that converts to a bed), and two captains chairs with a TV in the middle (which won't work while the RV is in gear), and a sleeping loft above the captains chairs (more beds!). On the outside, they used to be hyped-up version of station wagons: light yellow and loaded with wood paneling.

Now, picture this monster in the lane next to you, neigh-- coming at you on a mountain road. Now imagine it has five bikes on the roof and a Hot Wheels racer strapped to the front, as if this mad machine has already found its morning meal. When it comes into focus, you see that it has Alabama plates. Get the picture?

I remember taking out a tree with those bikes somewhere in South Carolina (at a Holiday Inn, I believe), and Mom having to find an eye doctor for me when I was little in Vermont, pulling up in the gravel parking lot of the rural office in our traveling home.

I remember Dad firmly having had enough, though likely on a car trip later, and bucking Mom's One Suitcase Per Person rule, a rule I now look back enviously since B & I try to back in roll-aboards always, and taking exactly one respectable looking suitcase into the Greenbrier, a place that doesn't allow jeans in the lobby, along with a honest-to-God garbage bag full of other things he wanted to have. "One suitcase," he said.

I remember careening around Philadelphia's only roundabout, heading toward a place where the road would fork. Mom was getting a much-needed break from driving, only to have us wake her up screaming "Mom! East or West?! The road forks!" Mom, who had been blissfully asleep, had no idea what city we were in, what road we were on, or, likely, why she'd ever planned this damned trip, calmly replied, "We're going North to New Hampshire, so go North." This released the chaos in the car-- the road goes East or the road goes West, not North at all. "Yes," she said, struggling to unfold the map (ah, days before GPS), but eventually one side goes up or it doesn't--North is the end goal here!"

Of course, by this time, we'd passed the fork, selecting the wrong exit and prompting us into a Chevy Chase-worthy scene of monument repeats. From the back of the car, my brother piped up, "Look kids: Tower of London! Big Ben!"

We didn't always hit the road on our own. When I was going into second grade, Mom sat me down to explain that I'd miss the first three days of school but that she thought this was a good experience for me and important for us to do. What were we doing? Traveling through Europe for three weeks. I'm sure I cried about having to miss figuring out whose class I was in. Sucker.

Remember your fear of those Alabama plates barreling at you? Let's see if we can do one better: Imagine you're a retiree, or a couple away for a once-in-a-lifetime experience of seeing Europe with the love of your life. Then, the last group boards the bus and your heart sinks; it's a family of six, with kids ages 7, 11, 16, and 19.

Mom herded us to the back, where we sat six-across in the last row of the bus while we rolled through country after country. I'd love to say that I remember being changed forever by the dialect, the people, and the experiences, but what I really remember is limited to four things:

1) A cat on roller skates touched my hair bow when we saw the Midnight Express on stage.

2) A man at a rest stop had a driver's license that had all these weird symbols on it that looked like number signs.

3) I had a Happy Meal in a romantically-lit red velvet booth.

4) Todd figured out how to use the detachable shower arm to soak not only my suitcase from open window to another, but also to saturate some Italian woman's laundry, which was hanging between the buildings.

Mom always told me that she'd rather have memories from vacations than furs and cars and it was her desire to see the world that allowed the rest of us to do so. She used trips to protect us (taking three week trips before and after my Dad's first heart surgery), to heal us (setting up a perfectly-timed, last-minute cruise for my college spring break when I'd just had my heart broken), and to bond us. After all, how many families can sit around grousing over gray steak (Kentucky Campground), purple hamburgers (the coast of Spain), and the time Mom almost starved Todd to death by booking high tea for lunch in Vancouver; I still remember Mom's face when we left this elaborate meal of finger sandwiches and crudites and Dad and Todd both asked where we were headed for lunch. Granted, neither of their knees had even fit under the tiny tables where we'd feasted with stacked finger stackers and tiny cups of tea, for which I'm sure my Dad requested ice and "Sweet n Low, or whatever you have is fine."

It's because of this that we can bond over the low-laying beds in the home we rented in Canada and the time we got snowed on in Candlestick park watching a mid-summer baseball game; well, some of us did anyway. My sister decided to stay back at the hotel and I, desperate to be just like her, did the same. We watched movies on pay per view and got take out. A dream come true!

I'm sure Mom has been tempted, at times, to ditch us all, use those frequent flyer miles she worked so hard to organize and fly to places unknown. Instead, like the time we had a four hour layover from 1am to 5am in Houston, she let the rest of us truck down to the IHOP for pre-dawn pancakes while she slept, alone, in the hotel room she'd booked. I'm sure she thought of leaving us all a few hours later when we finally arrived in Atlanta only to all sleep while she drove the five hours home.

We can laugh about the times we tried to stay in Atlanta hotels after returning from late-night trips, only to find our guaranteed room mysteriously given away while the high school prom partied on in the hotel ballroom.

I now that know, as I look back on how I was raised, I am so thankful that my memories, even the "bad" ones are hilarious and wonderful. I love that I can remember Dad refusing to ski, hating to move hotel rooms every night, and generally just wanting a nice nap and a glass of ice tea when the rest of us were sooo ready to go to the theme parks; yet, he always went and did so happily.

The only time I saw him completely baffled was when he asked for the soup of the day in a restaurant out West, a formality for my Dad because, as my brother-in-law says, whatever they had, Dad would order. However, this waitress told Dad that the soup of the day was Wisconsin Beer & Cheddar. Dad stammered over himself and said, "I believe I'm going to need a minute." She left and he just laughed and laughed.

B & I are starting to plan our own family trips, something that I drive him nuts about on a regular basis. "Where do you think we'll go on our anniversary?" "We should plan to do..." But I know he knows it's from a good place in my heart. The memories that I so cling to from my life are ones I experienced with all my siblings and, due to our age range, that usually meant vacations.

I will say this, I have huge respect for Mom's mad planning skills these days, especially since I have trouble booking a single hotel in a city WITH the help of the internet and reviews. How did she ever find all these places without even seeing so much as a photo?

So, whatever you're doing this July 4th weekend, I hope you're with people you love. And if you are on the road, remember to steer clear of the RVs with Alabama tags.


Anonymous said...

Awesome read Ashley. You should write a book about those trips. I hope to someday read my kid's memories of such adventures. Thanks for sharing!

michelle said...

I always wanted my family to go on the "Johnson trips" instead of Gulf Shores!! I really enjoyed reading and hope to be able to give my kids perfectly planned Joan trips too! :)

~Mariah~ said...

I want there to be a "like" button on this post. It is awesome. Also, I hope I can figure out some of your mom's mad planning skills someday when we have kids! Only we'll do it with the tent trailer, so it will be even squishier. ~;o)